Sunday, February 21, 2010

What's in a Name

RHYS: Ever since early people realized the need to choose grunts to differentiate between a sabre toothed tiger and a squirrel what we name things is of vital importance. Studies have been done on our initial perception of people with popular names versus those with nerdy names. Until recently we'd always choose an Ashley over a Hermione (not any more, however which shows that our perceptions can be influenced by popular culture).
The same is true of the names we pick for characters in our books. The name has to be just right for the person. I have had problems with a character when I am writing. His scenes are just not going well. I don't have a real grasp on his motivation. And then suddenly in the middle of the book he'll look at me and say, "I know you keep calling me Anthony but actually my name is Ron." And as soon as I change his name, everything flows perfectly. I'm sure other writers have experienced this.

For this reason it is always with some trepidation that I auction off characters in an upcoming novel in the big charity auction at conventions. What if the name is hopelessly out of place for my historical period? What if it's just a difficult name and carries negative overtones? So far I'm always managed to do it, but I'm always apprehensive--especially since I've just volunteered to do so again at Malice Domestic and even promised to make the person royal or noble.

I'm writing about names today because on March 2 my new Molly Murphy mystery, THE LAST ILLUSION, comes out. It is the ninth in this series and the first in which I have deviated from a theme in the titles. The first books (Murphy's Law, For the Love of Mike etc) were all Irish sayings. With O Danny Boy the titles moved to Irish songs, then to popular songs of the early Twentieth Century. But this book is more thriller than mystery in many ways--Molly is hired to find who is trying to kill Houdini and finds herself caught up in the world of international espionage. So I wanted to make the title crisper and more thriller-like. The Last Illusion really describes the pivotal scene in the book and I think it captures the flavor well.

It is really important that the book title fit the tone of the story. If you see a catchy pun, you expect light hearted cozy. I made the mistake with the Constable Evans series of using puns for all my titles. As the series became meatier and darker they weren't really cozy any longer and I think I put off many people from trying my books. When one was nominated for the Edgar, I know quite a few people were surprised at the content.
So now I try to get the titles exactly right. And I'm wondering--how much are you influenced by a book title? Are you attracted to a thriller that has 'bone' or 'blood' in the title? Would you have found The Da Vinci Code as compelling if it was called A Murder at the Louvre? Look how many thrillers now have those buzz words: secrets, chamber, Templars etc in their titles.

If the publisher is not going to spend half a million on publicity and marketing for a book, our title and cover are the only things that can attract new readers. I've been lucky in that I've loved all my Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness covers (especially this one!) but I have writer friends who have felt that their covers were wrong and could do nothing about it. Also I've been lucky in being able to keep my titles. I know of writers who hated the titles their publishers came up with. The only title I have ever really, really hated was back in the days when I wrote YA books. A German translation of one of my books (which was about mountaineering) was calle "First Love Tastes like Strawberry ice Cream." Now if that's not misleading, I don't know what is!

If you go to my website,, you will find a trailer for The Last Illusion as well as the opening chapter to read. It's a fascinating glimpse into the life of Houdini, Illusionists and early espionage.

HALLIE: Love your title, Rhys! And I'm completely fascinated by Houdini etc. I've read just about every book there is about him. Can't wait to read your new one.
I do think titles are so important, but I confess to being less than brilliant about recognizing a good title when I see it. I wanted to call my last book "Baby, Baby" (it's about two very pregnant women) but the publisher felt it wouldn't convey the creepy suspensey-ness of the the book. So we went with "Never Tell a Lie" - which turned out to be a wonderful title though I was fairly lukewarm at first.

RO: It is a good title. I feel like I wasted almost two years of my life because my publisher changed the title of my second book..and of course had to change the cool image on the cover. It really broke my heart. The few reviews I got were better than they were for Pushing Up Daisies...but the title didn't roll off the tongue the way Daisies did, and the cover...well, you know what a camel is? A horse designed by a committee. That's what I got...a camel. Not the designer's fault..just happened. So, the book didn't get out there much. I never should have let them change it, but I was so new, I figured they knew best.What was it supposed to be called instead of The Big Dirt Nap? Corpse Flower. And the cover would have been gorgeous, we already had images. Maybe when I'm famous someone will reissue with the original title.
Now, I LOVE this year's title and cover. Fingers crossed other people will too!
I have a hard time with character names. I usually go through 3-4 names for each character before I settle on the right one. I've even taken to saving Playbills because of all the donor names in the back.
The auction name that I got at Bouchercon 2008 was fabulous. I may make her a recurring character. Her name is Nina Mazzo and it's absolutely perfect. Nina's a P.I. who specializes in philandering husbands. Uh...Nina's in Dead Head.

ROBERTA: Corpse Flower was a good name Ro:). But there's no telling really why one book takes off and another doesn't. I suspect the first in a series always has a better chance of hitting the big time. I've had several titles changed by the publisher, almost always for the better. And as my agent has said, the cover fairies have been good to me too!
I'm afraid I'm not too imaginative with names. Lots of times I catch myself using the same names over and over. "Michael" for example, shows up a lot. The folks who've bought names for my books in auctions have almost always turned into recurring characters. They get their money's worth. My favorite story was a man in town who was bidding in a silent auction at our library. He was very worried that the cost would shoot up out of his price range. But then his bidding rival had to leave the party early, so he won the prize--a character in DEADLY ADVICE. He was so pleased with the result. Sadly, he died of cancer not too long after the book came out, but his character lived on in the series. I'm so glad it worked out that way!

HANK: My favorite name I got in an auction: Urszula Mazny-Latos. I must say, I freaked for a moment. Then voila, she became Zuzu Mazny-Latos, a chic European fashion designer. Merci, Urszula! And at the next auction, by chance, I got Luca Chartiers! Perfect. (I thnk auction names are a real gift. And I love using them.)Titles? I'm haunted by titles. I'm always thinking of them. Always writing them down. And I'm always astonished that there's always another good one! Sending good vidbes for THE LAST ILLUSION, Rhys! Love it. And Dead Head, RO, is brilliant. And you have both truly scored with those covers! Go Jungle Red.

RHYS: So is it the title or the cover art that makes you pick up a book and ry and new author?


  1. If I don't know the author name, cover art is the first thing that draws me to a book. If it doesn't have beautiful, colourful, riveting art the title had better knock my socks off. Thanks for a great blog.

  2. Rhys? Can I just say again--I LOVE your cover! And I'm so eager to read that book--proving your point, instantly. (I mean--I would read ot anyway, of course, but still...that cover is terrific.)

    And Ro's too. Ro--was it your idea?

  3. Berkley (or at least their marketing department) is very much into punny titles. Part of me says that's tacky, but having mentioned them at various signings and drawn laughs, I have to think they know what they're doing. People will remember a funny title.

    Although I've read studies that say the cover art is more important--often the book buyer sees that before she (or he) is close enough to read the print on it.

  4. Not exactly my idea..I had sent the designer old pix of Grateful Dead art...versions of the skeleton with the roses. We didn't want to be so closely identified with them since the book is not about the band, but we wanted to be inspired by those images. And I think he did a fabulous job. He got a little swamped a few weeks back when he was supposed to be our guest, but I do have his interview so we'll hear from him in March.

  5. Hey Rhys,
    I was off at a Yoga retreat in the Berkshires with NO INTERNET CONNECTION and no cell -- it was absolutely awesome, but I was incommunicado.

    I love Houdini, Rhys and can't wait to read the Last Illusion.

    I'm with you, I think titles and character names are really important - I'm lucky that my publishers (and there are three of them) all liked my titles.

    WHen I had to change my protagonist's first name (and several minor characters) between publishers, and went from Addy to Hallie, it was like changing the name of a child. Extremely painful. But luckily I had the real Hallie (Ephron) for inspiration. .

  6. I think I sleep with my "10,000 Baby Names" book when I start a new project. The character's name has to be just right or I have trouble finding the character's voice. Titles are a whole different pain in the patoot! I seem to come up with them for other people much easier than I do for myself.

    A cover will catch my eye, but as I do so much on-line browsing and buying, the title and author's name is far more likely to grab my attention. So far, all the art and titles for the Jungle Red writers are "keepers" as far as I'm concerned.

    I can't wait to read all of these!

  7. Hank, you DO jave great luck in the character name auction department.

  8. Yes, Hank. I would have loved such a European-sounding name for my next Royal Spyness that takes place in Transylvania.

    I had to fit Reagan, Jensen and
    Danika into 1930s England.

  9. What a great discussion! I must admit I'm completely shallow. Covers and titles are hugely influential when I go to buy a book. But I admit to being completely hopeless when titling my own books--and thank goodness St. Martin's has been good to me with my covers...

    Just saw your cover for DEAD HEAD, Rosemary, and it really is fabulous! I can't wait to read it...

  10. Good covers and intriguing titles are both important to me, but few books have both. I've seen some awful covers on books with great titles, and vice versa. I hated the first cover suggestion for my new book -- really a dummy cover put together quickly so the distributor would have something to send out long before the book was printed. Unfortunately, it's *still* out there in a lot of places, and I'm starting to think it will haunt me forever. I hated the second cover suggestion too. I'm so grateful to the wonderful people at Poisoned Pen Press, who patiently kept trying until we had a cover that I absolutely love. The artist's name is Patrick Cheung. And I think he's brilliant. As for titles, I have chosen all of mine, and no one has tried to change them.